10 Instruments in Art We’d Love to Play


Merely approaching the field of art involving modifying and inventing instruments gives us a pleasant anxiety. There’s so much out there! Violins that play records. Artists that play buildings. Beats that play artists. Seems like magic happens when these mediums of creation entwine, but these few sound and look so amazing, it’s positively seductive. From replicas of Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal harp-lutes to Pierre Bastien’s tiny, mechanical orchestras, here are just a few functioning, artist-created instruments that we’d love to strum, bang, and play.

The Garden of Earthly Delights instruments, IRL

Would you believe that crafty musicologists at Oxford had actually constructed real-life, functioning replicas of the mutant harp-lutes and odd flutes from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights? Not all of them — some of the more surreal ones were disappointingly “impossible to make.” Allegedly, these few right here sound “horrible” and “painful,” but we’d love to try them out ourselves. Perhaps not in precisely the intended manner, but, you know.

David Byrne’s Playing the Building

Interdisciplinary artist David Byrne fused the century-old Battery Maritime Building with an organ for Playing the Building in 2008. The various mechanisms lay fully exposed to the visitors — the mallets rigged into the plumbing, the electric motors strapped to shuddering girders — all creating this wonderful hum and noise without any electronic amplification. Check out BoingBoing‘s Xeni Jardin exploring and hit it past 5:30 to see Byrne play it. Ahh. Ooh.

The world’s loudest instrument, allegedly

Although the largest and loudest instrument ever created is — as ordained by the Guinness Book of World Records — a pipe organ in the Main Auditorium of the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, these giant air-horn like constructions look pretty epic. Geir Hjetland’s “instrument” playing a composition by Maia Ratkje is a performance demonstrating the effect of noise pollution from opencast mining project that threatens Norway’s Vevring community. A serious theme for a seriously loud piece. Vvvvvuuuuu!!!

The oldest piano in the world, really

Of course it belongs in the Met! This is art. This first-ever successful hammer-action keyboard instrument was made in 1720 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, fully dubbed as “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud). Check out someone busting out with Presto e fugato from Sonata in G minor on it here. Brilliant! We want to play it. Badly. “Chopsticks.” Anything. We can’t. We know. Oh woe.

John Cage’s “prepared” piano

This is pianist Tim Ovens playing off musical notations for John Cage’s Sonata IV for Prepared Piano, not just pushing keys, but wedging bolts and nuts, twisting ties into the strings, strumming, plucking. It’s hauntingly beautiful. Well, it’s John Cage. He could make music from amplified cacti and plant materials with a feather.

Nam June Paik’s TV-cello… or cello-TV… or something…

This is cellist/artist Madeline Charlotte Moorman performing Nam June Paik‘s Concerto for TV Cello & Videotapes. Surely, you’ve seen this on a hundred Tumblrs. Yes, it’s a real thing. No, you can’t have one.

Daito Manabe’s human drum machine

Artist Daito Manabe is hypnotizing to watch. He has wired himself to a DIY interface so electric stimuli make his face twitch and contort in tempo with his tunes. Is he playing an instrument? Is the instrument playing him? Check out how the Daito Manabe and Masaki Teruoka duo did this thing live at the Transmediale in Berlin. Wish you were there.

Pierre Bastien’s little mechanical orchestra

French composer/experimental musical instrument builder Pierre Bastien uses mechanics as a medium for modern music. Aside from modified traditional instruments, he sets up gentle Rube Goldberg-esque machines of various complexities, fashioned from metronomes, little robotic hybrids, pulleys, cymbals, wire and who-knows-what. There’s so much to see/hear here.

A grand piano through a giant hole

For their Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano (2008) performance at the MoMA, artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla approached the heavy subjects of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” also being an ode to “humanist values and national pride.” Carving out a giant hole in the middle of the piano, they performed the piece upside down, the removed octaves making for “a structurally incomplete version.” This technique would make a great covers album.

Laurie Anderson’s Viophonograph

Classical strings meet… turntablism? Performance artist and experimental musician Laurie Anderson invented the Viophonograph in 1976. Its violin body turns a custom 7-inch vinyl record which is played by a needle mounted to a bow, all fed into an amplifier. That’s not all. Anderson also invented another version using magnetic tape and tape head, a 6-foot-long baton-like MIDI controller/”talking stick” mimic and several voice filters, including a auto-masculinizing one she called “audio drag.” We want them all. At the same time.